Where are human rights in Zuma’s plan?

Nelson Mandela’s clear vision for South Africa has grown cloudy, as Jacob Zuma shifts the focus away from human rights

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president-in-waiting, faces plenty of tough domestic challenges without worrying over-much about international relations.

But how he handles the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe will show how much importance he attaches to key issues of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law that resonate at home and abroad. South Africa’s recent performance could certainly be improved.

Addressing foreign diplomats in Pretoria last month, Zuma said the African National Congress’s main foreign policy aim was to strengthen South Africa’s role in peacemaking, reconstruction, development and integration, especially in Southern Africa and the African continent. “We must emphasise what our icon, Nelson Mandela, said in 1992: that the primary task of ANC international policy was to be a friend to every nation in the world,” he said. The party had a “clear plan” to fight poverty and other global ills.

But Zuma’s lack of emphasis on human rights and good governance contrasted sharply with something else his more famous predecessor said. Writing in 1993, Mandela acknowledged the importance of human rights ideals in the international anti-apartheid movement and pledged “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”. A free South Africa, he said, would be “at the forefront of global efforts to promote and foster democratic systems of government”.

In a recent article Terence Corrigan of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said a central question for Zuma as he prepares to assume power is whether the ANC “has squandered [South Africa’s] enormous moral capital and its commitment to human rights to side with some very questionable regimes?” The phrases human rights and democratisation no longer even appeared in the foreign affairs ministry’s mission statement, he noted.

Mandela’s clear vision for his country has grown especially cloudy of late, following South Africa’s two-year stint on the UN Security Council. During that time it sided with Burma and Sudan against Western countries enraged at egregious human rights abuses. A similarly blind eye was turned to China’s treatment of Tibetans; South Africa recently withheld a visa from the Dalai Lama for fear of upsetting Beijing. Dismay also greeted its refusal to support a UN declaration decriminalising homosexuality and its reluctance to back moves to classify rape as a war crime.

The most notorious case of backsliding concerns South Africa’s continuing support for Robert Mugabe’s illegitimate, bloodstained presidency in Zimbabwe. Only Pretoria has the power — economic, financial, physical — to force genuine change in Harare. But despite a destabilising influx of three-million Zimbabwean refugees, it consistently refused to apply its leverage during the reign of Thabo Mbeki, Zuma’s predecessor.

When Mugabe stole last year’s presidential election, Zuma was critical at first. “We cannot agree with Zanu-PF, we cannot agree with them on values,” Zuma said. “We fought for the right of people to vote. We fought for democracy.” But the hope that Zuma was breaking with Mbeki’s quietly-do-nothing diplomacy has since faded. He now firmly backs Zimbabwe’s new power-sharing accord despite strong suspicions that the opposition has been suckered into perpetuating Mugabe’s hold on power. Last month he attacked Western countries such as Britain for withholding development aid.

Persistent allegations that Zuma has corruptly enriched himself, and has subverted the legal system to avoid just retribution, also raise a symbolic question mark over the next government’s commitment to the rule of law, at home and abroad. ANC plans to “speed up” the country’s land reform programme, for example, have raised fears of forcible, illegal farm seizures as in Zimbabwe. The party vows this will never happen.

South Africa’s apparent post-apartheid drift away from what are loosely called “Western values” can be explained in several ways. For James Kirchick, an American writer, Zuma and the ANC’s erstwhile freedom fighters are willing heirs to an “anti-imperialist intellectual tradition heroically opposed to the western democracies”. This may help explain unconfirmed press reports that the ANC has received electoral funding from China, India and elsewhere — and its political dallying with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Then there’s the “realist” view. Given that the country’s short-term imperatives are rapid economic growth, social development, and the alleviation of poverty, given its acute need of global partners, and given its aspirations as a continental power, South Africa simply cannot afford an unworkable, West European-style liberal democratic agenda.

According to Terence Corrigan, “an emergent multipolarity of power in the world will spawn a multipolarity of values”. In other words, universal rights remain an aspiration, not a fact. One day South Africa may have to meet a more exacting standard. But that is unlikely to happen while Jacob Zuma is in charge. – guardian.co.uk

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